Is there a difference between dependence and addiction? Although it is subtle, there is indeed a difference between the two terms. In fact, this is one of those “grey areas” that can often be difficult to understand.(2)


Both terms have slightly different definitions and are often used interchangeably, leading to some confusion. As dependence often leads to or is accompanied by addiction, it is easy to misinterpret what either of these terms are characterizing. 


Let’s then examine what exactly each of these terms means and why it is important to understand the difference between them.

What is Substance Dependence?

Dependence is characterized by symptoms of tolerance or withdrawal and often occurs when a drug is used regularly. Although drug dependency often accompanies addiction, it does not necessarily mean that someone has an addiction.


For example, someone who is prescribed pain medication may need to increase the dosage to experience the same level of relief they experienced when they were first administered the drug. This does not necessarily interfere with this person’s ability to lead a normal life, a key diagnostic factor in addiction. It simply reflects a natural increase in tolerance levels and no decrease in the need for the substance.

What is Substance Addiction?

Addiction, unlike dependency, is a behavioral change caused by biochemical dependency within someone’s brain as a result of continued abuse. Though it is true that their tolerance levels increase, the main priority of an addict is to maintain the level of substance use required to achieve the “high” they seek. This objective often disregards any harm the user may cause to themselves or others around them.(1)


Addiction causes users to consistently use a substance in excess. Other priorities such as maintaining relationships, being functional at work, school, or within a home setting are often no longer seen as necessary to someone with a substance addiction. Addicts desperately obsess over where or when they are able to use and anything that inhibits their ability to do so is often viewed as an inconvenience.

Help Is Available

Regardless of whether someone has a substance dependence or substance addiction, the real issue is substance misuse. Continued and consistent use of any drug, whether it be prescription or illicit, can be dangerous and harmful on many levels. Misuse can lead to physical, mental, emotional and social implications that far outway the user’s need for a “high” or relief. 


If you or someone you know is struggling with substance misuse, talk to a medical expert for advice. Medical experts are trained to offer helpful assistance and steer you in the right direction to help yourself or someone close to you. Asking for help can be a difficult step, but it is an essential one to achieve your recovery goals. 



  1. National Institue on Drug Abuse –
  2. National Institue on Drug Abuse –